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Margaret O'Brien . Photograph by Arthur Ellis.

‘Waiting game’ as retailers look to future after lockdown

MANY small businesses around the county are said to be playing a waiting game over their futures, with some cautious optimism that a new focus on supporting local companies could provide a life-line.

While Phase Three of the re-opening of the economy brought a welcome upturn in footfall in towns across Clare, some businesses had already made the tough decision to keep their doors shut.

“The future is less uncertain, but it is still is uncertain,” said Margaret O’Brien, CEO of Ennis Chamber of Commerce. “We’re very sad to see one our members who have already taken the decision not to re-open. Pandora had a very attractive shop on O’Connell Street, with a lovely offering and great staff. They had renewed their membership in March, so they certainly didn’t expect that they would be closing down for good. For the retail sector as a whole, there is a lot of concern about how things will go and it will be the other side of Christmas for many, before they get a sense of how their future looks. There is one thing that’s clear – we must shop local. That’s critical, it’s not just a tag-line. We have to do it, otherwise we will see more vacant buildings and closed shops.”

Ms O’Brien noted that, as they look to their recovery, businesses are eligible for a range of supports from the Chamber and other agencies. “This is a time for practicality. That’s why we’re offering practical advice and supports in collaboration with organisations like the County Council, the Department of Education and Skills, the Midwest Regional Skills Forum and others. I have to say that I’m really proud of the efforts that shops in Ennis have made to ensure they’re safe for staff and customers. Consumers will only go into places where they feel safe, and that’s another new reality. We made sure that we were on-hand with support in applying to the council for the Re-start Grant, which provides help to cover the cost of re-opening. On the first day the scheme opened, we had 257 applications going in.”

Training to transition to the ‘new normal’, is also key to recovery, Ms O’Brien believes, particularly when more retailers now need to offer a blend of on-line and in-store shopping. “We’re working hard with the likes of the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and other agencies and members have really embraced training,” she said. “One of the popular programmes is called ‘Explore’ and it’s from the skills forum, targeting people over the age of 35 who have few if any digital skills. It covers everything from sending email to using a smartphone. At this point, I would have a sense of how to match particular shops to specific training.”

Another reason to be cheerful is the forthcoming niche destination plan, Promote Ennis. The partnership between the Chamber and Ennis Municipal District held consultation events at the end of last year and its roll-out has taken on a new significance in the context of the pandemic.

“We’ve been able to draw on Leader funds to get this going,” Ms O’Brien noted. “We’ll be one of the first towns to have a destination marketing plan and really this will be the basis for our recovery plan and businesses have been very supportive.”

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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